Before the whistle had even gone, his direct opponent attempted to make conversation by asking Paidi whether the Kerry squad had traveled to Croke Park by bus or by train. O Se didn’t even acknowledge the question but when the first ball came toward them moments later, he won it and in the process robustly upended his man. After receiving treatment from the trainer, the slightly damaged Dublin forward wandered groggily back towards O Se.
“Now,” asked O Se, without even making eye contact with his victim, “what was it hit you that time, the bus or the train?”
Apocryphal or not, nobody ever bats an eyelid at the casual violence espoused in this anecdote because some stories are just meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed. On a deeper level, though, there is a sense when you hear it, too, that O Se was regarded as the prototype for all modern defenders in Gaelic football. Only interested in winning the ball and stopping the man. No fuss and little enough desire for public plaudits, his manner on the field was part of his legend and at least some of the reason why the Kerry county board charged him with the job of ending their All-Ireland famine in the mid-1990s. Despite delivering two titles since then, his unique approach is still causing problems.
“We didn’t win the All-Ireland last year, so it didn’t matter whether we lost by one point or 50,” O Se said in an interview with Kevin Kimmage in the Sunday Independent 10 days ago. “That’s not acceptable to Kerry supporters. People will say that we’re great losers and all that. We are gracious in defeat but, deep down, Kerry people don’t like to lose. Being a Kerry manager is probably the hardest job in the world because Kerry people I’d say are the roughest type of bleeping animals you could ever deal with. And you can print that.”
In a hugely entertaining article, it was a quote that perfectly captured the gruff humor O Se is known for. Moreover, to anybody who has been in and around sport at the highest level, his salty description of the county’s fans would hardly have jarred either. How many times do we describe some heroic figure on a team, be it the one we are cheering for or against, as a “tough bastard”? It’s a standard issue compliment we afford a player we admire, without actually thinking we are questioning the man’s parentage. Hardly the sort of language you’d use in front of your mother, of course, but very much the lingua franca of the hurling and football world.
Against this background, the subsequent controversy surrounding O Se’s unfortunate choice of words appears to say more about the internal workings of Kerry GAA politics and the prevailing move toward political correctness in Ireland. Sure, he could have put it better than he did and wouldn’t we all be better off deleting the “f” words a bit more from our speech, but essentially he was praising his supporters for being obsessive winners. Is there something terribly wrong with admitting they are the sort of people who do not accept defeat under any circumstances? From what I can gather, that has been most people’s sober analysis of the incident, yet the county board moved quickly (too quickly, the conspiracy theorists might venture) to distance themselves from O Se and prolong the shelf life of the controversy.
There is no question that O Se is not an infallible manager. He has made mistakes during his time in charge of Kerry and his critics can argue that his success has more to do with the reservoir of immense talent in the county than the acumen of the coach. That’s a legitimate basis for discussion, and if enough people in Tralee and Killarney feel that they should have more than two All-Irelands to show for the last seven years, they are entitled to push for a change of management. But hounding him out over the sort of language that is heard before match inside every dressing room the length and breadth of the country seems a little dishonest.
And to this end, a far more significant story to emerge from Kimmage’s excellent piece of journalism was that there is a serious chasm between Paidi and some of his selectors. The “bleeping animals” reference might have been wonderful fodder for the radio phone-ins, but the fact O Se and John O’Keefe appear to be at loggerheads about the circumstances under which Maurice Fitzgerald might return to the fold should be causing the supporters most worry just now. In an effort to get him back on board, O Se wants to allow the greatest Kerry footballer of the modern generation the same leeway Kilkenny gave D.J. Carey this year, whereas O’Keefe believes every member of the panel must put in the same amount of training, regardless of his status.
“Paidi epitomized the Kerry spirit more than anybody else,” wrote Pat Spillane in his autobiography, “Shooting from the Hip.” “He was our chief motivator and would go through a wall for the cause. He was also one of the hard men in our defense. Paidi was a bit of a loose cannon and for years, the county board were reluctant to trust him with the job of senior team manager. Eventually, his patience and persistence paid off and his motivational powers played a key role in Kerry’s All-Ireland success in 1997.”
Which is a nice way of saying O Se was selected more for the impact of what he can say to people rather than the polite tone of it.